If we do not know the ultimate reality, we stand in somewhat the same relation to it as blind men to color. If I am to describe color to a blind man, I can do it in one of two ways. I can tell him what color is like, or I can say what it is not. I cannot possibly tell him what it is. I can compare it to variations in temperature, speaking of red as “warm” and blue as “cold,” though this will perhaps mislead the blind man into thinking that red is warm. On the other hand, I can say that color is not hard or soft, round or square, liquid or solid. The danger here is that the blind man may easily suppose that I am talking about nothing, for I have denied to color every positive quality that he knows.
To some extent this is the difference between the religious doctrines of the West and the metaphysical doctrines of Asia. The former wants to say what reality is like, and the latter what it is not, but the average mind supposes that both are trying to say what it is. Hence the confusion.
— Alan Watts, “The Negative Way,” Alan Watts — In the Academy: Essays and Lectures
In one of my dictionaries, the French word animateur is defined as “one who is capable of simplifying difficult concepts for the benefit of a general audience.” (I’ve never seen this particular definition backed up by any other source, but never mind that.) As soon as I read it, I thought of Alan Watts. There are many things I love about Watts’s books, but his gift for explaining things in clear, memorable images is possibly the quality I love best.
The material in this book was compiled by a couple of scholars who feel that Watts has been given short shrift by academia for being a mere “popularizer.” The 45-page introduction struck me as an unnecessary justification of their efforts. Those who care more about credentials than substance will remain unimpressed. Watts was representative of the mid-20th century golden age of the middlebrow, when there was a widespread, optimistic belief that ordinary people would be interested in hearing philosophy and literature discussed in a straightforward manner, minus all the status-seeking and turf-defending common to intellectual life. I remember being at a library sale last fall and being greatly impressed by the quality of some of those old Book of the Month club publications. What a shame that that sort of aspiration became something to be embarrassed about, but what a joy it is to be reacquainted with it in this book.